Aug. 31 (Bloomberg) -- As chief recruiter of Republican U.S. House candidates, Kevin McCarthy spends his time searching the campaign trail for Elvis, the Grand Ole Opry and a path to a congressional majority for his party.
With House Republicans vying to regain control of the chamber they lost to the Democrats in 2006, the strength of challengers McCarthy has enlisted will determine whether the party can capture the net 39 seats it needs to succeed.
“The majority is in play,” McCarthy, 45, a two-term California congressman, told prospective donors at a fundraiser this month in Kansas City. “The Democrats now have to play defense.”
That wasn’t the case when the recruiting drive began last year. He analyzed voting patterns and how Democrats spent their travel allowances to spot incumbents who lost touch with voters because “they stop communicating in the district.” Yet some of the candidates he signed on -- “Young Guns,” the party calls them -- may be stronger contenders in four years than they are today because, “I didn’t think this is the time you could win the majority.”
Now, McCarthy cites surveys such as a Gallup Poll that shows voters prefer Republican congressional candidates to Democrats 47 percent to 44 percent, and that President Barack Obama’s job-approval rating has fallen to 43 percent.
‘They Are Scared’
McCarthy carries that message on the road, traveling during the August congressional recess to Missouri, Tennessee and the Carolinas, where he gave candidates political advice, moral support and help raising money.
Democrats plan to spend as much as $1.2 million in the Kansas City advertising market alone to help House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton “because they are scared,” McCarthy told 15 lawyers, businessmen and bankers who paid between $500 and $2,400 at a steakhouse lunch for Vicky Hartzler, Skelton’s Republican challenger.
Between events, McCarthy drove to the Liberty Memorial for the view overlooking downtown Kansas City, swung past the Grand Ole Opry music house in Nashville, Tennessee, and toured Graceland, Elvis Presley’s mansion in Memphis. He arrived at another Memphis attraction in time for the march of the ducks through the lobby of the Peabody hotel.
Believing in Elvis
The Graceland tour and a drive past Sun Record Co., where Elvis recorded in the 1950s, connect with a favorite line McCarthy uses to attack the $814 billion economic-stimulus package Congress enacted last year.
“More people today believe Elvis Presley is alive than that the stimulus worked,” he says.
Public disapproval of Democratic policies isn’t the only advantage Republicans have: The retirement of 18 House Democrats also gives them a chance to gain ground. In 1994, the last time Republicans wrested control of the House from Democrats, “we won 70 percent of every open seat,” McCarthy said.
Republicans “have widened the playing field dramatically in the last eight to 12 months,” said Stu Rothenberg, who edits the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. “It’s a combination of more and more people wanting to run because it looks like a winning cycle to Republicans, and a renewed effort to recruit.”
With as many as 33 Democratic seats endangered, he said, “the Republicans have an excellent chance to take the House.”
‘Measuring the Drapes’
Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, dismissed McCarthy’s claim that Democrats are in jeopardy of losing the House.
“Congressional Republicans inside the Beltway are already popping the champagne bottles, saying that they’re going to seize control,” Van Hollen said at an Aug. 27 news conference in Washington. “It is a premature celebration.”
He said Americans don’t want to return to the “policies that got us into an economic mess in the first place.” And many Republican candidates are “not a good fit for what are moderate, centrist districts,” he said.
Not all McCarthy’s recruits have succeeded. In May, Vaughn Ward, one of the Young Guns, lost the Idaho primary to a state legislator backed by the Tea Party, a movement of tax-and-spending opponents that has challenged the Republican establishment throughout the country. Raul Labrador will oppose Representative Walt Minnick, a first-term Democrat who voted against Obama’s health-care overhaul and stimulus legislation.
‘A Winnable Seat’
Still, McCarthy is optimistic. Among the Republicans’ best opportunities, he said, is the retirement of Representative Dennis Moore, a Kansas Democrat. That’s because Moore’s wife, Stephene, is now the Democratic candidate, McCarthy told bankers at a meeting to promote Republican contender Kevin Yoder, 34, a state legislator. Stephene Moore will have the baggage of an incumbent without the fundraising clout, he said.
Stephene Moore said the Democratic campaign committee “invested in me” because “they feel it’s a winnable seat.” She added, “this has been a Democratic seat, a moderate seat for a long time.”
In Memphis, McCarthy toured Graceland before speaking at a fundraiser for Stephen Fincher, 37, a gospel-singing cotton farmer from Frog Jump, Tennessee, who he recruited last year to challenge Democratic incumbent John Tanner.
Fincher said after the closed event that he had amassed $700,000 by the time Tanner decided late last year to retire.
The Cook Political Report rates Fincher’s race a tossup against Democratic State Senator Roy Herron, a lawyer who describes himself as a “truck driving, shotgun-shooting, Bible-reading” and “family-loving country boy.”
‘Expand the Battlefield’
McCarthy also attended a dinner in Nashville for Diane Black, a Republican state senator running for the seat held by Democrat Bart Gordon, who’s also retiring. Cook rates the race “likely Republican.”
The recruitment of candidates like Fincher, Yoder and Mick Mulvaney in South Carolina, a state legislator challenging incumbent John Spratt, will “expand the battlefield,” said Brian Walsh, political director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
They’re part of the Young Guns program for promising stars, who receive special attention and fundraising help.
McCarthy, the son of a Bakersfield, California, firefighter, relied on pure luck for his own first fundraising effort: He won $5,000 in the California lottery during the 1980s, which he invested in the stock market, he said. That helped finance a sandwich shop, Kevin O’s, which paid his way through California State University.
Working the Phones
Later, he became an aide to Republican Representative Bill Thomas, then served in California’s Assembly, where he was minority leader. In 2006, he ran for Congress when Thomas retired. He won again.
In Congress, McCarthy became chief deputy to Republican Whip Eric Cantor and was appointed vice chairman for campaign recruitment by the committee chairman, Texas Republican Pete Sessions.
The energy he brought to that job was on display during the campaign trip.
The day after he dined with donors in Kansas City, McCarthy caught a 6:15 a.m. flight to Memphis to attend the Fincher lunch that raised $60,000.
While McCarthy made calls from the Peabody hotel lobby, aide Freddy Barnes said over breakfast that his boss would probably take a nap during the drive to Nashville. Instead, McCarthy worked his mobile phone and BlackBerry to congratulate the winners of Republican congressional primaries in Washington and composed Twitter messages for supporters.
McCarthy has “an uncanny knack” for spotting talent, said former New York Representative Tom Reynolds, who once chaired the Republican campaign committee. “He was helping candidates running for Congress the first time even before he got here.”
To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at Msilva34@bloomberg.net.